Friday 9 August 2013

Season 21 Marathon (1) Warriors of the Deep

written by Johnny Byrne
directed by Pennant Roberts

Continuity Announcement
Four episodes originally broadcast on BBC One from 5th - 13th January 1984 featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, Janet Fielding as Tegan and Mark Strickson as Turlough. The story is a sequel to Doctor Who And The Silurians (1970) and The Sea Devils (1972).

Then And Now
It's not a new observation that we don't watch these stories the way they were originally intended. Whole fan projects have been based on this observation: TARDIS Eruditorum and Running Through Corridors being the cream of the crop. This story was originally shown over the course of a fortnight and was a sequel to two stories much of the audience would not have seen, which weren't commercially available and so the producers could readily assume no one would accurately remember them.

This DVD, which I watched straight through in a quiet afternoon, was sold in a box set with the two 70s' stories.

So there are two versions of Warriors Of The Deep: the 1984 version that stood on its own supported in some cases by fuzzy memories and the 2013 version where I know every detail that came before in digitally remastered clarity. Even Johnny Byrne didn't have that luxury: he was provided with markedly inferior copies of the two Pertwee stories that he found exceptionally hard to follow.

So, which version is better?

The BĂȘte Vert
Whatever version we eventually settle on the Myrka is not going to come out smelling of roses. The Myrka isn't just a bad special effect, it's a famously bad special effect and as such exerts a gravity on all criticism of the serial. A cut in pre-production time (due to the surprise 1983 General Election) meant it was made in a rush, famously the green paint rubs off on several other actors.

And it is bad, there's no denying it. It is wobbly, it has googly eyes, it sways dizzily from side to side as it walks, it has humanoid arms for no discernible reason and there is an absolutely hilarious scene of Ingrid Pitt fighting it karate style where the cumbersome costume stops the Myrka from reacting to her at all.

In short the Myrka is rushed, poorly designed and a staggering misjudgement of what the series could do with the time and budget available. In many ways there couldn't be a better metaphor for Warriors Of The Deep as a whole.

Just Like Old Times (Only Different)
There can be no mistaking that this story was made for fans: who else could be expected to appreciate a sequel to two stories from over a decade ago? The continuity at least we can assume worked better then: without a DVD to hand probably no one would spot that Ichtar wasn't a character in The Silurians or that there was no Myrka in The Sea Devils and so wouldn't ask how the Doctor recognises both. This is the 1984 version of the story.

Here in 2013 I have shiny DVDs of both original stories. I know full bloody well that Ichtar doesn't appear in The Silurians and nor did “the Silurian Triad” of which he is apparently the last survivor. This is not a problem, I'd like to make that clear. This is how monsters come back now: the central concept is dusted off and retooled with new ideas grafted on. Sontarans might gain football chants but they still have the potato head design and clone warrior background, in short all the iconic cues everyone remembers spruced up with modern technology.

The problem with this resurrection is that the iconic elements of the concept is almost invisible. Malcolm Hulke's two stories positioned these creatures as the aboriginal inhabitants of the Earth. They were sympathetic, written as individuals (more so in The Silurians than The Sea Devils) and with a genuine prior claim to the planet and forced to drastic action by human xenopobia. Half the drama of both stories comes from the Doctor having a genuine chance at negotiating peace before an outside influence (the Brigadier in one, the Master in the other) scuppers his chances and a bloodbath ensues.

The Silurians in this story are plotting genocide, will not listen to any of the Doctor's peacenik claptrap and the Sea Devils are portrayed as identical soldier drones like any other monstrous minions.

So this story doesn't work as a sequel but does it stand on its own?

Doctor Who and the Massacre
The whole structure of the story is a base under siege plot building towards a big set piece ending: the Doctor standing over the bodies of everyone (human and reptile) that he has met over the last 100 minutes and saying “There should have been another way.”.

The problem with this is, despite the Doctor continually talking about the honourable and advanced society of the Silurians, they don't want peace. This honourable and advanced society has apparently outlawed all war except in self-defence, which one would assume would prohibit genocide. Their way around this is to take over a human undersea base which has a bunch of nuclear missiles pointed at the unnamed enemy in a future cold war. They are going to fire the missiles, trigger the nuclear holocaust and then sit back to rule the Earth after all the pesky “ape primitives” have killed one another.

Why would anyone try to make peace with these peoples? The ending makes no thematic sense because at no point was an alternative seriously possible.

All that said the base that is under siege has some good stuff going on inside it. It's 2084, there's another Cold War (or the same one, they weren't too optimistic on this issue in the early Eighties). There are secret military bases under the ocean, of which this is one, and the crew live in constant tension because of a series of random unannounced drills to make sure they really will push the button when it comes down to it. Even better the final failsafe on this system is the “synch operator”: a human being mentally linked to the targetting computer without whom the missiles cannot be fired.

On this base there is a conspiracy going on: two enemy agents embedded as the base's first officer and doctor (the latter played with a wonderfully over the top accent by Ingrid Pitt) have killed the synch operator and now the post is being covered by an inexperienced and psychologically unstable student. They fully intend for this poor young man to have a breakdown from the stress so they can move in and use the technology in his head to reprogramme him and use him to take out the base.

The base has a pretty good crew: well-cast, well-realised characters. There's some odd dialogue, not least in the self-consciously apolitical decision not to name either of the parties in this war, but by and large the base scenes work very well. Unfortunately this isn't what the story is about. The base and the conspiracy are window dressing. Notably the conspiracy goes nowhere and the conspirators are amongst the first casualties in the early stages of the climatic slaughter.

What the story is about, what the series will increasingly be about over the next two seasons, is the return of old monsters to please the fans and not about creating a dramatic setting and exploring it. A compelling story could be made from the base personnel and their world, a statement I'm confident in making because for much of the first two episodes that is exactly what happens.

In conclusion, neither version of the serial is entirely satisfying on its own merits and the serial I like is the one that gets walloped over the head late in the second episode when the Silurians fully intrude on the plot.

Next Episode
A bijou adventurette in which Lovecraftian weirdness brings the English Civil War to rural England in 1984.

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